Stephen King has written about “being alert to the humor implicit in horror.” He’s also not at all ashamed about going for the plain ol’ gross-out. That’s why, in terms of my film aesthetics, the best part of Stand By Me will always be the pie eating contest. Before King, Hitchcock made similar observations, and both put this awareness to good use.
That’s nothing unique really. Think about Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, even Shel Silverstein (if you know where to look). All were well aware of what Hitchcock called “the humor of the macabre.” Like every single accident in Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil, funny can be sick and vice versa.
But let’s go back a bit. Before the 1954 Comic Book Code, before the shrill, homophobic paranoia of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction Of The Innocent, it was the heyday of EC Comics, specifically Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror.
Looking around now, it could be argued that Wertham ultimately didn’t change things a whole helluva lot. The Glorious Houses Of DC And Marvel managed to soldier on through the 60s and 70s with titles like House Of Mystery and Strange Tales. Still, Wertham did manage to let more than a little air out of the tires.
Compare, for instance, a 1951 Vault Of Horror to a 1972 House Of Mystery.
A lot less bite, yeah?
But I was talking about humor and horror. Ok then. Tales From The Crypt #38. Herbie marries a woman he met at Mardi Gras. She’s wearing a hag mask. He finally rips it from her face, only it wasn’t a mask. Cue one of the Crypt-Keeper’s cohorts: “Watch it, Herbie. That’s Sue’s skin you have in your hand! Don’t fling it from you like that! She may lose face!”
What? You were expecting Oscar Wilde?
It’s worth noting that a year after the Comic Book Code hamstrung EC Comics, Alfred Hitchcock performed essentially the same function as the Crypt-Keeper, The Vault-Keeper, and The Old Witch at the beginning and end of every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, right down to the gallows humor. William Castle often did the same as prologue to a number of his flicks as well including 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, and The Tingler.
Anyway, around 1973, Plop came along. For the unfamiliar, imagine mixing up Tales From The Crypt, National Lampoon, and Zap Comics (Never seen Zap? You really owe it to yourself).
So while Strange Tales became more and more a vehicle for Dr. Strange and Nick Fury, Plop was doing stuff like this:
One of my favorite issues, and one I still have, is the October 1976 Giant issue. The cover alone is steadfastly in line with the likes of Gorey and Addams. But inside? Oh, inside.
The highlight is “King Of The Ring.” Long before Tolkien’s much over-venerated classic became a mainstream phenomenon, these folks were already taking a mean-spirited romp through Middle-earth with such characters as Gondeaf, Souron, Glum, Schlob, and the Nazighouls.
If you sense a little familiarity, that’s no accident. One of the several masterminds behind Plop was Sergio Aragonés. Pick up some copies of Mad and Cracked from the 70s and 80s. Here and there you’ll run across some Steve Ditko as well.
Not exactly hard line horror, but sophomoric black humor?